Welcome to the second installment of Exploring Eorzea, my ongoing chronicle of my time spent in the world of Square Enix's new MMO, Final Fantasy XIV. If you're new to the series, check out the first installment and get up to speed by clicking here.
In the last entry, I spent a lot of time talking about what signing up for FFXIV was like, how you create your character, and how the game compared to Square's previous MMO, Final Fantasy XI (FFXI). Moving forward, we'll be taking a look at my first few days in the game's world and how everything works. Of course, there will still be allusions to FFXI—these two titles are so inextricably linked that it's all but impossible to talk about FFXIV without comparing it to SE's first foray into the MMO arena. Oh, and if I happen to get too technical with terminology or concepts, don't hesitate to tell me in the comment section. I hope even folks who've never played an MMO before will find something interesting in all my rambling about the game.
With those disclaimers out of the way, let's dive in and see what the game has to offer to the new player.
After creating my character and selecting a server (Trabia, which is apparently one of the more populated game worlds at present), the game whisked me away to my starting city. I selected Ul'dah, only because it was the city that housed the Thaumaturge guild (which is my character's class). What I didn't realize was that choosing it for that reason was largely irrelevant—because you don't do anything at your class guild until level 20. By that point, traveling from either of the other cities to Ul'dah is a piece of cake (and honestly, you could do it pretty much from level 1...)
Your newbie character warps into the game world, clad in his or her generic starter gear (which you can later sell to a vendor for a whopping 1 gil each), and...you're on your own. Like FFXI, FFXIV isn't exactly new player friendly. WoW does a great job of giving you a Tony Jay-narrated cutscene that sets the tone when you start a new character and plops you into a world where they've conveniently marked everyone you need to speak to with a giant exclamation point over their head, but FFXIV isn't quite so into the whole handholding thing. They have, at least, added exclamation points to mark quest givers or objectives—which is nice, because trying to talk to the massive number of NPCs could be an entire game in and of itself.
Having so much experience with FFXI gave me a bit of an advantage in those first few minutes because many of the mechanics between the two games are similar. Once I'd gotten my Logitech controller configured, I popped up the menu and started looking at my various options.
Since FFXIV is set to be a PlayStation 3 title at some point, expect another clunky interface designed to work more with a controller than a mouse and keyboard. Everything in FFXIV currently requires copious amounts of menu navigation and is the antithesis of streamlined. While it's common practice to rag on games for mimicking Blizzard and World of Warcraft (WoW), there's a reason for it—what Blizzard has done works quite well. SE still refuses to acknowledge that, though. Honestly, for me, the game is unplayable without a controller. I know people who play with mouse and keyboard, but I will never be one of them.
After figuring out the interface (which took several minutes), I started to explore my new homeland. Ul'Dah is a large city, but I'm not really sure it has an FFXI inspiration for comparison. Gridania is reminiscent of Windurst—with its woodsy setting and paths—and Limsa Lominsa is sort of like a seaside version of Jueno (with the whole level thing happening), but Ul'dah is more generic. I guess you could call it a cross between Bastok and San D'oria, only without all the loading zones.
I wasn't sure what to expect, population-wise, but Ul'dah does have players wandering about. It's not swarming with people like Jueno or the larger WoW cities, but it's not a barren ghost town, either. I was a little worried it would be more the latter than the former.
Ul'dah is a lovely place, graphically speaking. I run the game on an Asus G53JW laptop with an Intel Core I7 740QM processor, 6 gigs of RAM, and an NVIDIA GTX 460M graphics card and can run the game at 1920x1080 resolution. I don't turn on all the effects (I leave anti-aliasing and ambient occlusion off, and lowered shadows to medium), but the game runs well and it looks quite stunning. SE's benchmark for the game is ridiculous—don't believe what it tells you. You don't really need to spend four grand to run this game. Even running it at a lower resolution, the game still looks great. You will need a decent graphics card and CPU, but if you have a relatively new gaming machine (and no, a four year old gaming rig doesn't count as "relatively new") you should be okay. I firmly believe the benchmark is as crazy as it is because SE wants to "future-proof" the game—meaning they expect newer hardware to be able to do more with the title. Not sure how that will work with the whole PS3 thing, though—I can see that version being the ugly stepchild at launch and can't even imagine how it might look three years down the line.
After soaking in the sights, I find my first quest giver—who points me toward a parade. Going to the parade phases me into an instanced event. If you don't know what that is, an instanced event is an event that only happens for you (or your group). You're phased out of the persistent game world for this event, so other players can't see it or partake in it. Lots of MMOs use it for dungeons—that way, you're not running through a dungeon racing other groups for a set number of monsters (commonly called "mobs") to kill. FFXI had no instanced dungeons, so leveling could get ugly as multiple parties fought for monsters to slaughter.
Entering the instanced event gives you one of the game's first cutscenes—which are gorgeous. I didn't expect anything less from SE, though. The parade marches by and you spot an Elvaan Thaumaturge controlling a giant Goobbue—and next thing you know, it breaks free and starts wreaking havoc in the city. I was immediately called upon (at level 1...) to help restore order. I was a little nervous at first—Goobbues in FFXI were found in the upper levels of the Boyahda Tree, along with the Sanctuary of Zi'tah, and weren't something you screwed around with solo unless you were close to level capped or a Red Mage or Beast Master. Turns out, this Goobue fight is a tutorial for the battle system—and you're not fighting alone. As I engaged this creature, I got my first look at the action bar—which is a little bar that comes up when you draw your weapon. As you rise in class ranks, you earn action points and new skills. The points allow you to place more actions on your bar. Thaumaturges start out with four—phantom dart (their generic attack), scourge (a dark affinity spell), banish (a light affinity spell), and exaltation (an ability that allows the THM to restore 50% of their mp upon use—naturally, it has a lengthy cooldown for balance purposes).
So, I targeted this Goobbue and let fly with my magic—and then noticed a stamina bar. Each action performed uses up stamina. If you deplete the bar, you'll have to wait a few seconds for it to refill. It refills quickly, but it's an odd system. It makes the combat in the game feel sort of slow and clunky. This is exacerbated by the lack of an auto-attack feature. In theory, Phantom Dart should be an auto-attack for a THM, but it's not. Every time you want to use it or any other attack, you have to select it from the menu (or a macro, if you're so inclined—but most people won't use macros until later in the game when grouping becomes more prevalent)—which is a real pain in the ass. Apparently, this battle system is faster than it was at launch...which is a terrifying thought. This is where WoW's interface, with its icons and cooldown timer, would be nice.
After pummeling this poor renegade Goobbue, I was victorious—and earned both experience points and Thaumaturge skill points. My initial reaction was "WTF?" In another example of SE trying to needlessly reinvent the wheel, you no longer get to just level up through the acquisition of experience points. Now you have two gauges to fill. Filling your experience gauge improves your physical level, which gives you more of those meaningless stat points I mentioned in the last column. You can plug those into various categories like strength, vitality, etc. and see tiny incremental improvements in your character. The skill points are the experience points for your specific job. Leveling up your job rank means you can wear better gear, use better weapons, and learn new skills. Why do we need two experience gauges to fill? Because everyone knows grinding is so much fun that doing it twice is like a gift from heaven, that's why. Plus, there was like one square inch of screen space that wasn't full—so Square decided the best way to make sure the monitor was completely cluttered was to add yet another bar.
With this threat to Ul'dah vanquished, I was sent to the adventurer's guild, where I meet another little Taru who explained how the game's Leve system worked and sent me on my way.
Leves are FFXIV's equivalent to dailies in WoW—repeatable quests on a timer that you do regularly for experience, gil, rewards, and sometimes faction rep (which is your standing with various groups—another thing to grind, because having a high enough reputation with some groups leads to better gear or specific quests. MMO designers are a devious lot when it comes to figuring out ways to make you waste as much time as possible). However, yet again, SE can't be like everyone else. They're not dailies—they're GuildLeves. If that weren't bad enough, they're on a 36 hour timer instead of 24. God forbid Leves should just reset at the same time every day—oh no, that would be too easy. Instead, they reset every day and a half, so if you don't play constantly, you're never really sure when the next cycle starts.
Eager to get on with the leveling up and acquiring of "phat lootz" (which is the entire point of any MMO...) I wandered over to the Leve counter and started picking quests. You can do eight battle leves per cycle, as well as eight regional leves. Battle is self explanatory—you go out and kill X number of some creature (in the low levels, you'll slaughter a million innocent beetles, marmots, and something called a Coblyn) in thirty minutes or less and earn experience and gil. Regional leves are for crafters—you take on a crafting assignment and see a specific NPC for materials to create the requested item.
You choose Leves based on your level (they go in ten level increments...) and then you're sent out to a nearby camp to complete them. For me, I was sent to Camp Black Brush to start my journey to godhood.
Leaving the walls of Ul'dah behind me, I found myself in a huge zone that reminded me a lot of the Gustaberg region outside of Bastok—meaning it's lots of hills and brown rocks and dirt. It's a beautiful area, graphically, but the aesthetics didn't appeal to me at all (I hated Gustaberg and Bastok in FFXI—I started there in Beta, but switched to Windurst when the retail version came out. Best decision ever. Bastok was the worst nation for conquest on my server—it was so bad it earned the honorary new name of "Lastock"). Wandering north, I consulted my map and eventually found a small outpost known as Camp Black Brush. In the center of camp is a glowing crystal known as an "Aetheryte"—approaching this thing will give you a symbol on your interface so when you open your menu you can interact with it. Doing so gives you several options, but the important one is "initiate Levequest." I selected that one and saw all the available Leves I could tackle. I picked the top one on the list and was then asked how hard I wanted it to be. Being a low level noob, I selected one star—higher stars are for either a group of players or a player who's higher level. After that, it asked me if I wanted to spend 10 of my 200 religious points to be blessed by some goddess. I had no idea what this meant, but figured you're always better off with some form of divinity looking over your shoulder, so I took it. Turns out, it's an experience buff for the duration of the Leve—but I didn't know that until a friend told me. Maybe the game tells you this in the manual you can read from the Aetheryte menu, but I'll be damned if I'm going to sit there reading a book when there's leveling to do.
With the quest now active, markers pop up on my mini-map indicating where the little Spriggans I need to kill are located. This is an instanced event, so you don't have to worry about some other jerk running around killing your Spriggans (although, they can see you killing the Spriggans, which is kinda odd). This is a good thing. I run out and attack the first Spriggan I find—only to learn I'm going to be fighting them in duos. Still learning the ropes of the controls, I die. I resurrect at Camp Black Brush and have to wait three minutes for my resurrection sickness to wear off (while sick, your recast timers are slowed and you have less HP/MP). At least there's not an experience penalty for dying...again, if you played FFXI, you realize that you lost 10% of your current experience toward the next level if you died after level five. This was a rotten and cruel thing on SE's part and I don't miss it at all. Sure, it prevented people from trying to get lucky and kamikaze some monster they had no business fighting, but it also discouraged many players from actually challenging themselves against monsters that were beatable but required a little strategy or skill.
Now more aware of what I'm up against, I mow through the Spriggans and level up. I take the next quest and level up again. Next thing you know, I'm level 8 and I've barely been playing for an hour. My physical level isn't nearly as high though—that one requires more grinding for some reason. One of the nice things about FFXIV currently is that the experience curve is pretty manageable. There is a problem with it (which I'll most likely discuss next week), but getting up into the mid-20s is a relatively fast and painless affair.
Nearly in the double digits, it occurs to me that my rank 1 gear is probably holding me back. I return to Ul'dah to find a better wand and some new clothes. After some research (which required tabbing out of the game and consulting Google), I figure out where the market ward is. This is FFXIV's auction house replacement. Players don't have a Mog House to store their extra stuff and no auction house to sell things. Instead, you get two "retainers"—free NPCs that you can store items with and use to sell your wares while you're out assaulting a steady stream of defenseless marmots in the quest to reach level 50.
One of the biggest complaints when the game launched wasn't just that there was no auction house (which is an MMO standard...) but that the retainers in the market ward weren't searchable as a whole. This meant if you were looking for a specific weapon, you would literally have to walk around and "check" each of the thousand or so retainers selling stuff on the off chance they might have what you were looking for. How this idea ever made it into the retail version of the game is beyond me—it's so stupid it beggars belief.
Luckily, SE has fixed that now—you can search for items at the item counter (although, not specific items. You have to choose the class of item, then scroll through all the possible variations of that item. It's not that bad now, but the game doesn't have a lot of gear yet. I shudder to think how painful this could be down the road, although they did make it work in FFXI). Once you find the item you want, the game will show you the 20 cheapest ones for sale and allow you to mark it. This way, if you want it, you can go to the market ward with the retainer selling at the cheapest price, find them quickly (thanks to the star by their name) and be on your way. Why do I have to go to the ward and then the specific vendor? Because that takes time, and time spent finding the gear you want is time you're not leveling and blasting through the content for another month, which potentially means more money in SE's pocket.
So, I used these new search tools—and quickly discovered that I couldn't afford new gear. In FFXI RMT (real-money traders, the slimeball "farmers" who ran around killing things for rare drops so they could amass huge amounts of gil that they would then sell for real money to other in-game players) almost entirely destroyed the economy. Inflation was rampant and it was very difficult to make money (I did well, only because I committed to leveling fishing and woodworking nearly to the cap very early on). SE heard these complaints, and then overreacted in the opposite direction. It's way too easy to make money in FFXIV—so easy, that money is essentially meaningless. That is, of course, unless you're just starting out. Quests and Leves pay more and more gil as you advance, but the first tier of each are pretty stingy. For example, my first leves were paying like 700 gil. Meanwhile, I completed an easy quest last night that paid 78,000. Because of this, I was stuck with my starter gear for quite a few levels. Aside from the fact that the stuff was ugly, it never really mattered—even the gear in FFXIV doesn't seem to have a huge impact on performance at low and mid levels.
Over the course of the next few days, I continued to do Leves at Camp Black Brush along with the main storyline quests. I saved money and bought a better weapon (I figured doing more damage was better than being able to take more hits as a THM, so I went with a weapon instead of a new robe. Seems like I was right) and eventually hit level 10. With mobs at Black Brush yielding piddling experience, it was finally time for me to venture out into the world. My next stop, Camp Dry Bone.
Tune in next week as I regale you with tales of fighting more marmots and giant dodo birds, my first foray into Leve Linking, explain Behest, and bitch about something that really irritates me about this game.